We all need the ability to judge. Good judgment enables us to make moral decisions and informed choices, and to better calculate the outcomes of our own and others’ behaviours. It gives us the opportunity to learn and grow – the foundations of wisdom. We use judgment in selecting a suitable principle applied to a given situation and identify what kind of actions are consistent with that principle.
However, there is another meaning of the word judgmental which has to do with being overly critical in an unhelpful way. This difference in meaning can give us a clue about which type of judgment is constructive and necessary and which ones may bring personal and interpersonal problems if practiced too often. Being non-judgmental is definitely one of the most difficult skills that one can attain. I had many years of mental health counselling training which taught me how to become a non-judgmental helping professional. In other words, in approaching my clients, how to appreciate their true selves, to respect their opinions and actions, and to be unaffected by their differences. As Carl Rogers put it, unconditional positive regard (i.e., non-judgmental attitude) “is at the opposite pole from a selective evaluating attitude – ‘you are bad in these days, good in those’” (p.225*).
Although not entirely, I try to apply this skill to my daily life as well and approach people with a non-judgmental attitude as much as possible. But it’s very hard to resist judging those who harm others, the society, and the world we live in. Still, perceiving the judgmental and non-judgmental stances on a continuum, and understanding certain conditions a non-judgmental attitude evolves in can be quite helpful.
The core of being non-judgmental is empathy. When evaluating someone’s behaviours or characteristics, understanding their own perspective, their stories and experiences is very important. Asking yourself “Why would she/he behave like that?” is a good start. Second, you need to evaluate your own behaviours and current habits in an objective manner. Have you acted immorally in the past? Have you, for instance, cheated in the exam? Perhaps you are not perfect either and depending on the situation, people can act in ways that you don’t approve. Third, ignorance or lack of knowledge may prevent us from being non-judgmental. The next time you judge someone, you may want to try to see whether you form strong judgments based on insufficient knowledge and stereotypes. Finally, oftentimes we tend to associate the person with their thoughts. However, we are more than our thoughts, that is, we are not defined by our thoughts. Witnessing someone having a thought you don’t like doesn’t mean that she/he is a bad person. Separating thoughts from personality is, thus, crucial.
There are many benefits of maintaining a relatively non-judgmental attitude towards others (and also ourselves) such as better relationships with others and increased compassion towards ourselves. However, your non-judgmental side may become your enemy as well. If you lose your ability to notice objective differences and separate good from bad, then you will lose your ability to make sound decisions which are needed to get through life. “Non-judgmental” sounds and looks nice, but only to the degree that it works for us, not against us. In fact, authenticity – being real and genuine, flourishes by balancing your ability to be non-judgmental and to evaluate things objectively.
* Rogers C. (1990). A client centred/person centred approach to therapy. In: Kirschenbaum H, Henderson VL, eds. The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable.